Thursday, March 05, 2009

Walter Benjamin and The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was associated with the Frankfurt School but developed his own social and literary philosophy. A Marxist critic, he fits into the preoccupation with how the ramifications of art, literature, the city and architecture function in relationship with humans who want to make sense of the social changes of the 19th and 20th centuries. Benjamin's reputation (despite his early and tragic death on the Spanish border as he was escaping from the Nazis) has steadily increased, and his writings are almost mandatory for anyone interested in critical/cultural theory/studies and/or in urban studies.

His Arcades Project, conceived in Paris in 1927 and stopped short because of his death, is his major work. The Belknap edition (1999) presents more than 1,000 pages of what Benjamin called "exposés," "sketches," and "drafts," (there is very little drawing in them, actually) and are replete with comments on literary, social, and cultural quotations of the time. The Arcades Project is probably the best in-depth study of the "arcades," the Paris shopping malls of the mid-1800s, as the city was undergoing industrialization. There is more than one interest in the book; in fact, the reader is breathlessly taken from one topic to the other in dizzying fashion: "catacombs," "Iron Constructions," "The Collector," "The Interior, The Trace," "Baudelaire," "Prostitution," "Mirrors," "Conspiracies," "Marx," and "Photography" are some of the chapters in this almost Surrealist collage.

To Benjamin goes the credit of reviving and reshaping the concept of the "Flâneur," the "man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets," (417) a creation of Paris, with the arcades as his preferred ambulatory haunts. The flâneur's experience can be summed up in the "colportage phenomenon of space," (418) a "peddling" of the different sights, smells, sensations, and perceptions experienced in the space of the city. Likewise, Benjamin's book is a colportage, a montage of literary, historical, social, and cultural images revolving around the Parisian arcades. An amazing product, the Arcades Project predates Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism not only in its form but also in its underlying attempt at multi-disciplinarity.

Benjamin's contribution to the emergence of new media technologies and the accompanying reconsideration of their relationship to art is best examplified in a famous (if not prophetic) essay in 1935-36 entitled "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." As a Marxist, Benjamin had to formulate a politics of art which would satisfy the demands of popular productive criticism, and the essay is based on the assumption that, as the means of reproduction become more and more available and hence cheaper, the "aura" which surrounded, for centuries (millennia?) famous works of art would gradually disappear. This aura, he argues, is unnecessary and not inherent to the work of art, and is the product of a bourgeois understanding of wealth; the "uniqueness" and "originality" of works of art have always acted as yet another class barrier between the haves and the have-nots, and what modern technologies of reproduction (remember this is still the 1930s) have done is precisely the opposite of what "high art" was supposed to do, namely, the preservation of art in the sanctum of ritualized elitism.

With photography and film quickly becoming the means of disseminating previously jealously-guarded works of art, mass audiences have suddenly found themselves partaking of this "aura" with the result that art was precisely freed from its illusory but golden cage and re-installed where it should have always been, among the people. As such, reproduction, a better alternative to mere (flawed) imitation, marks a momentous change in hitherto traditionalist concepts of art:

In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.

Of course, the concept of art and its imitation and/or reproduction revolves around the idea of the "original." And "original" entails another, intimately related term, that of "authenticity." Who better than those in power are to be the guardians of such authenticity? The possession, ritualization, and occultation of works of art (to be displayed to audiences only under the richest of pageantry) goes hand-in-hand with a possession, ritualization, and occultation of power, and the keeping of the former guarantees the survival of the latter. It is no wonder, then, to see the "best" works of art guarded against the prying eyes of the masses in palaces, castles, and places of worship. As the sole custodians of the canons of "high art" and "high taste," centers of powers have been able, if only by searching for, collecting, and keeping original works of art, to safeguard, by the same token, their claims of lineage, descendance, and hence their supposedly unalienable rights to govern and oppress with impunity.

But then, if the "presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity," as Benjamin writes in the essay, then the absence of this original also means that the concept of authenticity has to undergo a drastic change, if not a total eclipse and disappearance altogether. By removing the original, the concept of a "copy" as well as that of a "reproduction" make no sense anymore and, in a somehow perverted way, all instances of a work of art suddenly become originals or, in the strange absence of the term, suddenly Real art, art meant for consumption and not for display only, art for all, art that can be transformed, art that can be edited and adapted. In a word, art freed from its fetters and practiced, thus becoming actual government of one's self in society and in the polis:

For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.

Of course, I am writing from the vantage point of a 21st-century person using a digital technology which has actually, and not only theoretically, massively altered these notions of original and copy. What is the original of a digital photograph? Are there differences between originals and copies, other than the date/time of creation (and even these can be easily changed)? Who owns originals? What happens to an original when it is edited and saved as another copy, sometimes by the same author? If an original is sent to one hundred persons, do they all have copies or do they all have originals?

It is clear that, as we are entering the digital age, the ritualized "aura" which, for millennia, had served the ideological and economic interests of the self-appointed elite, has slowly come to a grinding halt. New terms must now replace the old binaries which created and sustained the illusions sometimes cherished by the very masses they were meant to enslave.

But then again, are we being, with Benjamin, too optimistic? Maybe Theodor Adorno's problem with "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" stemmed from his own concept of the "culture industry," almost diametrically opposed to the view that the popularization of art is the first step in the journey towards emancipation. The masses, instead of being liberated from the aura of ritual, may have been, in a cunning sleight-of-hand effected, this time not by the traditional centers of power but by the more prosaic holders of economic wealth, sent back to the grazing fields of pseudo-artistic and pseudo-cultural homogeneity and conformism.

The essay can be found here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Culture Industry Twenty Years Later

The original piece, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, was published in 1944, but Theodor Adorno revisited the subject almost twenty years later, in 1963, in a lecture followed by a full publication in 1967. The English translation appeared in 1975 under the title The Culture Industry Reconsidered (Adorno was dead by then).

The years' span was good not only for providing a necessary distance from which to reassess the progress made (both by one's ideas and by society), but also for allowing criticism of the "culture industry" to develop and acquire momentum and substance.

Adorno's use of the term "culture industry" has gained in expansiveness and versatility; it has also acquired theoretical status by being anchored in a specific model:

Thus, the expression ‘industry’ is not to be taken too literally. It refers to the standardization of the thing itself – such as that of the Western, familiar to every movie-goer – and to the rationalization of distribution techniques, but not strictly to the production process...It is industrial more in a sociological sense, in the incorporation of industrial forms of organization even when nothing is manufactured – as in the rationalization of office work – rather than in the sense of anything really and actually produced by technological rationality.

In true Emersonian fashion, conformity is the great socio-economic goal of the culture industry: by conforming to pre-packaged models, consumers of popular culture are kept on leash as "human dependence and servitude" are actually the "vanishing point" of the culture industry.

Adorno's critique of American media (see, in his first essay, and among other remarks in the same vein, his Life and Fortune magazines passage about the mixing of advertisement with "great" men to be emulated) has not abated, as he delights in telling of an "American interviewee who was of the opinion that the dilemmas of the contemporary epoch would end if people would simply follow the lead of prominent personalities." We are far indeed from the ethos of "self-reliance" enthusiastically proclaimed by the Fathers of American Transcendentalism!

The second essay's greatest importance, however, lies in Adorno's response to four major defenses of popular culture, namely, that it is harmless, that it is democratic, that it disseminates information, and that it orders our interpretation of the world:

Popular culture is, after all, harmless, as there is nothing intrinsically evil in entertaining people and in providing them with cultural outlets from which they can choose and of the quality of which they are aware; it is democratic because it is the people themselves who ask for this type of information, away from any elitism as it is the first time in history that culture is provided, cheaply, for all, regardless of class, gender, age, and race; it provides people with countless bits of practical information about health, education, politics, religion, and even sex, and is as such a superb disseminator of a better overall standard of living; finally and most importantly, it orders an otherwise chaotic life and gives it purpose, meaning, depth and, as Adorno ironically says, "standards of orientation."

These are indeed seemingly unsurmountable obstacles, but Adorno's second essay is specifically aimed at answering them. To see how he dealt with the four points above, and how he refined his understanding of "industry" as it applies to popular culture, I invite you to read the full essay (quite short) in either of the following online pages:

Google Books has the full essay as it appears in Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory by Scott Appelrouth and Laura Desfor Edles for online browsing here. has a good copy here as well.

The passages above are excerpted from “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” chapter 3 in Theodor W. Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, edited by J. M. Bernstein, London: Routledge, 2001 (98-106).

The original is found in Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Rolf Tiedmann, volumes 8 & 10, Frankfurt: Surhkamp Verlag, 1972, 1976, and also appeared in translation in New German Critique, 6, Fall 1975, 12-19.

(The photo above is that of Adorno on a manuscript background on a German stamp issued in September 2003 by Deutsche Post AG. Public domain).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Culture Industry

The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, written jointly by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, is probably the most famous text of the early critical theory Frankfurt school.

The 1944 essay explains the two authors' coining of the term "culture industry," and refers, in true Marxist fashion, to the way in which centers of power manipulate the common masses of people through a semblance of culture in order to not only enrich themselves, but also, more importantly, to keep them in a docile and predictable state of mind. By giving them, as Adorno and Horkheimer say, the "menu" at the restaurant table, the owners give customers the illusion of choice, even though the menu is already set for them.

This menu is popular culture, the "light" entertainment provided by radio, tv, cinema, art, and fashion. Contrary to what people think, this type of culture has nothing to do with personal and individual emancipation and growth. Quite the opposite, in fact: the more steeped one is in the daily details of soap operas, of serials, of "block-busters," of "best-sellers," and of the latest fashion, the more one is subservient to a model of reality constructed, piece by piece, to afford the greatest (economic) returns to those in power. Financial heaven needs customers-as-slaves in order to thrive.

The essay blends sociology, economics, and history to show how the con-game developed, giving the technological revolution at the end of the 19th century as its start:

The step from the telephone to the radio has clearly distinguished the roles. The former still allowed the subscriber to play the role of subject, and was liberal. The latter is democratic: it turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them to broadcast programs which are all exactly the same.

Not content with keeping the common people as chattel to be disposed of at will, the culture industry also dictates how we "should" see the world around us: who is the hero and who is the villain, how lovers should behave, what is a "just" war, what is beauty (how many people, nowadays, desperately want to whiten their teeth?); in a word, judgment about reality is taken care of by this industry which, of course, knows better:

The old experience of the movie-goer, who sees the world outside as an extension of the film he has just left (because the latter is intent upon reproducing the world of everyday perceptions), is now the producer’s guideline.

If Adorno and Horkheimer were living now, what would they have to say about our hyper-technologized, digital, and simulated world(s)? Is the internet a "virtual agora" where the voiceless, finally, have a voice, or is it just another "trick" of the culture industry, where even more affordable simulacra of real culture are thrown around in the shape of webpages (think about, for example, YouTube), chat rooms, blogs, and advocacy sites? Under the illusion of having more choice, do we have, in fact, only a bigger "menu"?

A seminal essay indeed which marks the beginnings of a body of ideas and tools (the "theory" part) to be pro-actively used in investigating the discursive productions of the post-19th-century world (the "critical" part), The Culture Industry can be found online here.

(Image above taken in 1965 with Horkheimer on the left, Adorno on the right, and Jürgen Habermas in the background, on the right, with hand on head. Public domain).

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Frankfurt School

The term "critical theory," as indicated in the previous post, goes back to a large extent to what was later known as the "Frankfurt School." The school was, according to David Sherman in his chapter on critical theory in The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy (2003), active from approximately the end of the 1920s to the early 1970s and included, among other figures, Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Friedrich Pollock, and Erich Fromm. These shared "a loose set of methodological commitments, the most important of which was to a multidisciplinary approach for constructing a comprehensive, neo-Marxist theory of contemporary society" (188). Finding themselves caught between an idealism which holds on to ethereal values devoid of social reality and a sociological practice which views opposition as meaningless, the members of the Frankfurt School brought "the insights of both into a dynamic tension to produce a materialist social theory" (189).

Originally based at the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung) at the University of Frankfurt am Main in Germany (the Institute is still operational, with a webpage containing an overview of its history) with Max Horkheimer as its director in 1930, the institute soon became a magnet for thinkers who energized Marxism with newer ideas after the collapse effected by the first world war and the emergence of fascist ideologies.

An index to the biographies and writings of members of the Frankfurt School is available at the Marxist Internet Archive here, and a "sociologically informed history" of the School, "Origin Myths in the Social Sciences: Fromm, the Frankfurt School and the Emergence of Critical Theory," which appeared in the Canadian Journal of Sociology in 1999, can be found here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Scope of Critical Theory

The (online) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy introduces critical theory in the following words:

"Critical Theory has a narrow and a broad meaning in philosophy and in the history of the social sciences. 'Critical Theory' in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a 'critical' theory may be distinguished from a 'traditional' theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation, 'to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them' (Horkheimer 1982, 244). Because such theories aim to explain and transform all the circumstances that enslave human beings, many 'critical theories' in the broader sense have been developed. They have emerged in connection with the many social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination of human beings in modern societies. In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms" (read the full essay here).

Indeed, the departure effected by critical theory has been revolutionary to say the least, as almost every aspect of human civilization has been put under the intense scrutiny of a new type of reading that has challenged traditionally accepted modes of interpretation. Sometimes referred to as "French Theory," or simply as "Theory," and intimately connected to what is known as the "postmodern condition," critical theory is firmly based on a Marxist view of society putting into question oppresive systems of all levels. As such, it is an activity where interpretation shifts from being passive, consumer-based, and acquiescing, to being active, producer-oriented, and challenging of social, cultural, political, and artistic artefacts (an interesting essay on critical social science along with a review of what critical theory is capable of achieving can be found here).

With the explosion of the "new technologies" and the progressively pervading simulations of reality (-ies), a political consciousness that spans the spectrum of human discourse is not only fascinating but also necessary.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Welcome to Readings in Critical Theory.

We read texts (fiction and non-fiction) that have a bearing on critical theory covering, but not limited to, the rise and development of the postmodern (and post-postmodern) era.

Topics related to textuality, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, narratology, colonialism and post-colonialism, history, religion, gender, ethnicity, hybridity, urban studies, film studies, pop culture, art, architecture, photography, cybertheory, and others, will be discussed as readings are subjected to the dialogic exchanges offered by the new technologies of the Internet.

In practice, this means that when a text is suggested for reading, discussion starts as soon as possible!